Rupert Matthews is the Police and Crime Commissioner for Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland.
Young Black men are far more likely to get stopped and searched by the police than other demographic groups. And they are more likely to get tasered as well.
Many on the left of British politics will tell you that this “disproportionality” is clear evidence that the police are biased – and then demand action to change that.
But what is really going on here?
In Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland – where I have the honour of being Police and Crime Commissioner – both I and the Force believe in openness and transparency on the issues. Data about stop and search is published online.
Undeniably the headline figures are disproportionate. A black person is more than five times as likely to be stopped and searched than the population of our city and two counties as a whole. And more than six times as likely to be strip-searched. For those who the Leicestershire Police designate as being of Asian descent – and Leicester has many such citizens – the figures are less bold. An Asian person is 1.2 times more likely to be stopped than the average, but barely half as likely to be strip-searched.
Drill a bit deeper and you see what happens after the person has been stopped and searched.
The percentage of people stopped who are then arrested range from 13.3 per cent for white people through 17.5 per cent for black people to 18.3 per cent for Asians. The figures for those for whom no further action is taken go from 70.1 per cent for Asians and 70.8 per cent for white people to 72.9 per cent for black people. The huge disproportionality visible in the ethnicity of people being stopped simply evaporates when it comes to the outcome of the stop.
If there is no meaningful disproportionality in the way the police treat people once they have been stopped, what can be driving the very clear disproportionality of the stop figures. At the risk of annoying all those who want to prove the police are biased in some way, I’m going to suggest that the answer has nothing to do with race and ethnicity, but with entirely different sociological factors.
Fortunately, I don’t have to rely on gut instinct.
I have set up an Ethics and Transparency Panel of independent local residents who have access to all records of stop and search across Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland. And the police have robust training programmes as well as studying data through consistency and dip sampling. Taken together, that gives me the confidence that each individual case of stop and search was carried out properly and in line with intelligence-led policing.
Going beyond that, a few weeks ago a research team from Exeter, Staffordshire and Keele Universities completed a huge research project that landed on my desk with an impressive thud. Or it would have done in printed form, but of course it slipped in silently via an email.
Now admittedly this was a study of the ethnicity of those who the police had tasered, not stopped and searched, but the headline figures showed a similar disproportionality. A black person has a much greater chance of being tasered than does a white person. There were other findings – such as that a female police officer is more likely to use her taser when confronted by a man than when facing up to a woman.
But it was the geographical mapping of taser use that was key. Tasers are much more likely to be used in densely populated inner-city areas than in rural villages. And the use of tasers more or less matched the deployment of police officers. If an area has more police officers, the people living there are more likely to be tasered than those in other areas.
So why do some areas have more police officers on patrol than others? Again, the data shows the answer. High crime areas have more police officers than low crime areas. The police go where the crime is and the tasers are used where the police are.
It is also the case that black people form a much higher proportion of the population in high-crime, economically-deprived areas of inner cities than they do in rural villages. Why that should be so is a sociological conundrum way above my pay scale, but clearly the causes of ethnic disproportionality in stop and search or use of tasers lie in those sociological factors and the impacts that they have.
Of course, there is more to the police’s relationship with ethnic minorities than just stop and search, and I would argue that improvements can still be made, but the bald stop and search figures are not the weapon that anti-police agitators think that they are. Though the constant harping on about the headline figures is damaging the trust and confidence of our ethnic minorities in the police with potentially disastrous consequences.
It is time for us to stop accepting the claims of agitators and instead speak up for the hard-working police officers who keep us all safe. After all, the data is on our side.